ARTICLE / THE MAKING OF... SERIES
The making of...
For any founder, passion is like a superpower. If you’re passionate about what you’re trying to do, then it’s more likely you’ll get through all the ups and downs of the start-up journey. When it comes to Cian Dawson and Courtney Brown, Co-Founders of healthy ice cream brand, GYM BOD, they have passion by the ice cream tub, van and cold store load. This is their inspiring story.
The making of... Series
Welcome to The making of... blog series. To start, can you give us a brief background into who you are and where you’ve come from?
Hi, I'm Cian Dawson, Co-Founder of GYM BOD: Better Option Desserts. At GYM BOD we make the best-tasting high-protein, low-sugar ice cream in Australia. Starting in a garage in Toowoomba, QLD back in 2018, we've expanded to 1300+ locations across Australia & New Zealand, including Coles, Woolworths Metro, Countdown, and Independents.
My Co-Founder and boyfriend, Courtney and I are both hard-core ice cream addicts who want to eat ice cream every day without compromising our health. Tired of disappointing low-calorie options, we founded GYM BOD to try and create a product that tasted like actual ice cream but didn't have all the sugar and calories of traditional ice cream.
Gabriel Briggs and Lillie Gredley, Founder of Meg
We see a lot of ice cream on the shelves these days. How did you come up with the concept for GYM BOD?
I was busy studying after work, and Courtney was making me thick Chocolate & Peanut Butter protein shake slushies to get me through the long nights of study. He would work out the macros to create a nutritionally balanced snack for me, which also tasted amazing. We couldn't believe how our 'ice cream slushie' tasted better than the commercial low-calorie ice creams on the shelf at the supermarket. I was addicted to them. Courtney had the idea of scaling the concept and setting up a Soft Serve Van franchise, to be a fresh & healthy take on the Mr Whippy van.
We got a commercial-grade soft serve machine from China to test how our Protein Shake mix would work. The 136kg machine arrived at the Brisbane Port and Courtney somehow squeezed the massive box into our tiny Corolla Hatchback.
After lots of tinkering, Courtney got the soft serve machine working, and our Protein Soft Serve Mix came out a treat! Next, we moved to Sydney, bought a food truck and then spent every weekend at different gyms giving out our high protein, low sugar soft serve. Then someone at one of our gym activations said "You should put this in a tub". That was the penny-drop moment. The next day we started researching formulators to help us turn our MVP into a scalable ice cream product.
We can only imagine how taxing that would be on you both. Converting the idea from a food truck to a supermarket shelf is a winner in our book. What research did you do to arrive at what you've got now? How did you test your product-market fit?
We did 2.5 years of iteration based on market feedback from giving out our soft serve and MVP ice cream products at different gyms. Our early formulations were insanely 'healthy' with 60g protein per tub, extremely low fat, and essentially no carbs or sugar. However, when we sampled the products with gym-goers we found we had to constantly explain our product to them. People would say they loved the nutritional value of the product, however, only the hard-core customer made repeat purchases. While people were saying they loved our healthier product, their actions were saying otherwise, as they were still buying Ben & Jerry's! Our goal is to convert traditional ice cream customers, so every reformulation aligned with this.
We don’t think you can get better research than testing directly with your customers and potential customers. Listening to feedback, what were the first iterations of your product like?
We had so many product quality issues when we started out. Part of this was to do with the fact that we didn't understand how to properly scope a product, so we were asking for the impossible from our formulator. We were asking for a 0% fat and 0% sugar product which was easy to scoop and didn't freeze too hard. That is literally impossible! Each time we updated our specs, we learnt more about what was possible in the world of ice cream and alternative ingredients.
We also had consistency issues with our then manufacturer, with inclusions not being dispersed correctly and inconsistent tub filling. We also purchased the wrong type of packaging for our first MVP product, so we had 20,000 soup cups instead of ice cream tubs. Soup cups have terrible insulation, so were not good in the freezer, meaning our product got destroyed the longer it stayed on the shelf. With each mistake, we learnt a lesson, and haven't made the same error twice! When we finally got through our soup cups and moved to actual 'correct spec' ice cream tubs, we didn't proofread one of our SKUs well enough, and had a flavour printed with a 'Gluten Free' logo on it, when it, in fact, was full of gluten! So the packaging was unusable (and not financially viable to buy and apply stickers to the tubs) so they were all chucked out! Now we take the proofing stage extremely carefully. In our first 2.5 years, we threw out more ice cream than we sold, purely based on iterating so quickly and previous batches being redundant. It was heartbreaking throwing out the product, but we hated selling sub-par products when we knew we had a better version ready to go. Being ice cream addicts, product quality and customer experience is a top priority for us. Without that, you don't get repeat customers.
There was a Simon Sinek post on Instagram the other day that said “We don’t learn much when things go right. It’s when things go wrong that we learn the most” and we think this pretty much sums up what you’ve just described. How about the funding? How did you initially fund everything?
For the first 2.5 years, GYM BOD was fully bootstrapped on graduate salaries. Any spare money after paying rent was funnelled into the business. Thankfully we both got promoted at work which enabled us to fund the constant iterations of our product and invest into new packaging, photoshoots, product development and sales consultants. We borrowed $70k from my parents for our first big GYM BOD ice cream production run, which took us 18 months to repay. Each month, we would repay $3-4k from our corporate paychecks to clear the debt.
When we had the opportunity to trial with Coles in 70 stores, we needed $200k to fund ingredients, production, marketing and logistics. The bank of my parents was closed, so we approached the real bank, who told us a BIG FAT NO! We ended up doing a family & friends Seed Investment round to raise the money. Since then, we have continued to reinvest all our cash into the business, and have used invoice advancement to support our cash flow. We found the invoice advancement really challenging with the rebate system that supermarkets use, so we now prefer to use our AMEX card for cash flow support in the business.
You mentioned having some wrong information on one of your SKUs earlier. How did you go with the branding process to arrive at where you are today?
We’ve always had a really strong vision for the brand and worked closely with our designer to develop the brand assets. We often create concepts in PowerPoint and then our designer turns them into something professional looking! Authenticity is also important. We talk about our GYM BOD start-up story a lot as us Aussies love an underdog story! Whilst we’re the smallest brand on Coles freezer shelf, we’re proud to be competing with the global FMCG companies.
If there’s one key takeaway from your start-up story and that’s passion. So with the brand created and formulation and funding sorted… How are you getting the word out there? How are you scaling the brand?
Instagram, LinkedIn and TikTok have been critical to our growth. TikTok has been powerful in reaching new audiences and showing the 'behind-the-scenes' part of our business. We have spent $0 on TikTok and have been able to create multiple viral videos, just by being authentic! It's really challenging running a small business when you have to 'wear all the hats', and constant content creation needs to be prioritised as much as cashflow forecasting and supply chain management. This is something I've really struggled with, as dealing with day to day business-bullshit really kills the creative flair, but you just have to push through and post content - it doesn't have to be perfect!
We use LinkedIn to share our business growth story. Coming from the corporate world, Courtney and I really enjoy LinkedIn as a platform - we love seeing people's business successes and learnings, so we consciously create content for this platform. I think a lot of Food & Beverage start-ups forget about LinkedIn as a platform.
We also do a lot of good old fashion marketing. Most weekends, we’re at a different gym doing sampling. We also have an 8ft tall GYM BOD ice cream tub which we attach to the back of the car and drive around. It's driven all the way from Melbourne to Queensland. People tag us in their Instagram stories when they see it..
We get asked all the time if we do influencer marketing. We have a really strong "NO" position on this. We had some really terrible experiences dealing with 'influencers' in the early days and vowed to never pay for someone to talk about our product ever again. I'm actually really proud of this position as it shows how important authenticity is to our brand. People share and talk about GYM BOD ice cream because they genuinely love it, not because they've been paid.
We agree on the power of social media if used correctly. And yes, authenticity is something that many many brands claim to do… but fall short. Overall you’ve had a full-on journey as a start-up. What does the future hold for you both? What is the biggest challenge or challenges you think you'll face moving forward?
The freezer aisle is the most competitive space in the supermarket. For every range review, we push for more shelf space purely based on our sales performance as opposed to big FMCG companies who throw cash at supermarkets to get their product on shelf. This is really challenging, however, it comes back to the authenticity piece. GYM BOD is on the shelf as it's a bloody good product, and our customers love it and spread the word with their friends.
Our biggest challenge to date has been bringing manufacturing in-house. It's been a monumental effort by our team, and we are so grateful for the team's support, and the support of our investors for continuing to back us. It was a huge risk, however it’s resulted in a massive improvement in product quality and cash flow management.
We have massive goals for GYM BOD and want to be on every supermarket shelf in Australia, New Zealand and beyond. We are looking for a partner who can accelerate our growth into new markets and support our new product development. I think finding the right partner to support this growth will be challenging, as it's the first time we will be taking this 'next step'.
Thanks for sharing your story with us. With all the hard work you’re putting in there’s no doubt you’ll see the rewards at the end of the day. On our final question… knowing what you know now, what advice would you give another entrepreneur who is embarking on their own startup journey?
Work fast, make mistakes fast, learn fast, watch your customer's buying behaviour (actions speak louder than words) and just keep going. Building a business is a really hard slog, and nothing good comes easily. You just have to keep going and make sure each decision is made with a clear goal and strategy.